Empaths and sensitive people often experience some level of post-traumatic stress. This is, in part, because they’re on sensory overload for so many years that their systems are flooded with adrenaline. Other reasons include early neglect, abuse, or simply that they didn’t feel “seen” or have their sensitivities supported in their families. I’ve written about this topic in Thriving as an Empath.
Early trauma can come in many forms. Possible sources include:
- Hearing your parents or siblings frequently argue
- Being repeatedly at yelled
- Physical and/or emotional abuse
- Being shamed or blamed for being “overly sensitive”
- Being bullied
Even experiencing intense ongoing household noise and chaos can feel traumatic. An empathic child’s highly sensitive system can absorb more stress than others would in these situations.
Your past can still affect you now. When you are exposed to a similar stimulus as an adult such as a disagreement with your partner, you may have an exaggerated emotional response because you are flashing back to the original trauma. (This is similar to a veteran who misreads a car backfiring as an exploding bomb.) With post-traumatic stress, your system can’t fully return to its calmer state before the upset or even the initial incident. You are never quite at rest and remain aware of protecting yourself from further threats.
Empaths are at risk of becoming hypervigilant which is draining for empaths. You may keep scanning your environment to make sure you are safe from being drained or entering a state of hyperarousal. If you were exposed to early trauma or abuse as an empathic child, including not feeling “seen” by your parents, you may have become exquisitely attuned to your environment to ward off threat. When your young nervous system develops without healing, you can become hypervigilant.
Empaths are often mistaken for being aloof or snobbish, but others don’t realize that the distance you seem to keep is because you’re focused on protecting yourself and ensuring that the ground is solid. The Buddhists say, there is always a groundless ground there to support you. Even when you are inundated with excessive stimulation, the groundless ground is always there.
7 Healing Strategies
Write in a journal about your early traumas. Then you can be aware of them. None are “too small” to count.” This is the first step to freeing yourself from the past.
In a quiet moment, think back to when the early trauma occurred. How old were you? Where did it take place? Then picture yourself returning to the house or other location where it happened and retrieving your wounded inner child who has been stuck there. Tell the child: “I am sorry you were hurt and I will never allow that to happen to you again.” Then take the child home with you to care for with love.
Emotional Release. As you heal, many emotions will surface anger, fear, depression, self-doubt. Let yourself feel and express these emotions—a supportive therapist can create a safe environment for you to do this.
Set Clear Boundaries. Learn to stick up for yourself. Don’t be a doormat. If someone isn’t treating you well, say in a firm, neutral tone, “Let’s discuss this when you’re calmer or “It hurts my feelings when you say… I’d appreciate it if you stop.” Also remember that “No” is a complete sentence. Sensitive people are often afraid to disappoint others but it’s essential to get in the habit of saying “no” when something doesn’t feel right.